Insight & delight in a satirical battle of the sexes in highly entertaining You Never Can Tell

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Stephen Vani & Sara Jackson, with Heather Goodall looking on, in You Never Can Tell – photo by Douglas Griesbach

I don’t often make the trip out to Fairview Library Theatre, but for Stage Centre Productions, I was willing to make an exception, to see their production of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, directed by Scott Griffin, which opened to an enthusiastic audience last night.

Inspired by commedia dell’arte and with the hallmark social satire that we’ve come to know and love about Shaw’s work, You Never Can Tell pits reason against romance in a pre-20th century battle of the sexes. Set at an English seaside resort on one August day in 1896, energetic, playful twins Dolly (Sara Jackson) and Phillip Clandon (Stephen Vani) make the acquaintance of bachelor dentist Valentine (Holm Bradwell) during Dolly’s visit for a tooth extraction. All are newcomers, and this is the twins’ first time in England, having been raised by their mother (Heather Goodall) with their older sister Gloria (Kate MacDonald) in Madrid. The fact that they don’t know their father is shocking to Valentine, who finally accepts the twins’ invitation to lunch when they’re able to come up with a grandfather; he is also smitten when he meets Gloria. Before they leave the dental office, the twins meet Valentine’s ornery landlord Fergus Crampton (Michael Chodos), who is put out with a bad tooth and six weeks’ back rent owing from Valentine – and who has a wife and three children he hasn’t seen in 18 years – and he is invited to lunch as well.

You can probably see where this is going. The twins have unwittingly invited their estranged father to lunch and all heck breaks loose, turning this surprising and unwelcome family reunion into a legal battle when Crampton takes issue with how the twins were raised and demands custody. The Clandons’ lawyer Finch McComas (Fabio Saposnik) comes to the rescue and enlists the aid of Bohun, Q.C. (Stephen Flett) to mediate the matter – and to great and satisfactory effect. In the meantime, Gloria and Valentine spar over their feelings for each other, complete with manipulation, revelation and adoration – not to mention some telling and funny hypocrisy and double standards. All this under the care and watchful eye of William (whose real name is Walter) the hotel waiter (Roger Kell), who has a surprise family reunion of his own with his lawyer son.

You Never Can Tell is Shaw at his wittiest, fast-paced best – and this cast is more than up for it. Jackson and Vani are a rambunctious treat as the mercurial chatterbox twins. Jackson is endearing as Dolly, with her unstoppable curiosity and lack of discretion; and Vani has a quixotic and dramatic flare as Phillip, a self-professed expert observer of the human condition. Goodall brings a lovely combination of world-wise intellect and warmth to the direct, forward-thinking Mrs. Clandon; a modern woman and author who chose to leave the unbearable confines of a loveless marriage to a harsh husband, her family may be unconventional, but her children are educated and loved. MacDonald’s Gloria is statuesque, stoic and whip smart; brought up to embrace science and reason, she is shocked and ashamed by her feelings towards Valentine, but refuses to be put down by them. There’s some great chemistry with Bradwell’s Valentine, who blends nicely the romantic and sentimental with the studied and observant; and the two are so well matched, you can’t tell who’s winning.

Chodos’s Crampton is a great combination of glowering grump and baffled traditionalist; appalled by the twins’ behaviour, he can’t help but be charmed by them. He’s not a bad man, just a stubborn one with old-school, outdated standards who’s resistant to change. Other stand-outs include Kell’s William, a delightfully affable, philosophical, class-conscious man who sees things for the way they are, but is nevertheless optimistic enough to allow room for change. It is William who utters, time and again, the words that form the play’s title. Saposnik gives McComas some hilarious layers; a put-upon lawyer trying to maintain a professional, serious demeanour as he struggles to take charge of an unruly situation – and even more unruly clients in the Clandons – he’s an outsider, yet part of the family. And, although we don’t see him till the final scene, Flett is a memorable and strong presence as Bohun, the commanding, astute and sharp Q.C. who can present a situation in a way others hadn’t considered – and to insightful and comical effect.

With shouts to the set designer Todd Davies and lighting designer Michael Walsh for creating a magically light, airy and open seaside environment; and wardrobe coordinator Gayle Owler for assembling the striking period costumes.

Insight and delight in a satirical battle of the sexes in Stage Centre Productions’ highly entertaining You Never Can Tell.

You Never Can Tell continues at the Fairview Library Theatre until Saturday, May 28, 2016; the show runs Friday to Sunday this week and Wednesday to Saturday next week, with an 8 p.m. curtain – except for May 22 and 28, which are 2 p.m. matinee days. You can book ahead by calling the box office at 416-299-5557 to reserve tickets or book online. Advance booking strongly recommended, as this is a popular show – and rumour has it the run is on the way to being sold out.

Stage Centre Productions is very excited about its upcoming 40th season; Artistic Director Michael James Burgess had this to say:

We will be kicking off our 40th Season (my 6th as Artistic Director) in September with the North American premiere of an English comedy called Entertaining Angels by Richard Everett, which broke box office records at the Chichester Festival Theatre a few years ago. That production received widely positive reviews, receiving 5 stars from the Edinburgh Guide with The Sunday Times writing that “Richard Everett has written a warm, glowing, serious comedy, like an Ayckbourn play finished by JM Barrie,” while the London Evening Standard reviewed the play as a “very English comedy with some real emotion … scratch the surface and you’ll find interesting undercurrents rippling the water … Adultery, miscarriage, divorce and deception interestingly handled all, are just some of the problems that writer Richard Everett beds down among well-received jokes … This is a sure-fire hit.”

So mark Thursday, September 29 in your calendars for first night.

In the meantime, enjoy the May 24 long weekend, all!

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All the scared, brave, brash humility & humanity of the remarkable Joan of Arc in Heretic

Sarah Thorpe in Heretic - photo by Laura Dittman
Sarah Thorpe in Heretic – photo by Laura Dittman

Soup Can Theatre opened Sarah Thorpe’s Heretic at Theatre Passe Murraille (TPM) Backspace this week, this production co-directed by Thorpe and Scott Dermody.

Entering the TPM Backspace is like stepping into church and back in time. Early sacred music fills the space, with haunting Latin a cappella harmonies echoing throughout. On the back wall are Joan’s three saints, her three heavenly voices in chalk board stained glass triptych: St. Catherine, St. Michael and St. Margaret. Groupings of white candles mark the corners of the apron, and a wooden lectern sits centre stage.

Sarah Thorpe in Heretic - photo by Laura Dittman
Sarah Thorpe in Heretic – photo by Laura Dittman

Inspired by a monologue from Shaw’s St. Joan, Thorpe plays multiple characters as she takes us on Joan’s journey, told from her point of view, in this modern-day retelling; from a 13-year-old farm girl who hears voices of three saints, to the young cross-dressing woman fighting to drive out the English and crown the Dauphin, to the 19-year-old put to death for heresy and witchcraft. Emboldened by her voices, with a great reverence for God and the Church, and not taking no for an answer from her parents, the military and noble powers that be, the inexperienced girl that everyone thought was crazy became the inspiration that gave the French the upper hand over the English in a country that had known war for decades. Using the black floor as a chalk board, Joan draws out the history, the places, the plan – always trusting her voices even through her own terror at the battle to come. She became the poster child for the uprising of an underdog nation, only to be put down when the powers that be were done with her and her presence had become a liability to them.

Sarah Thorpe in Heretic - photo by Laura Dittman
Sarah Thorpe in Heretic – photo by Laura Dittman

Thorpe does a lovely job with the many facets of Joan, an earnest, driven young woman who dares to put on men’s clothes and throw herself into the fray – always with Joan’s humanity at the core of her performance. Some great moments of comic relief: Robert de Baudricourt, the gruff and macho garrison commander at Vaucouleurs; the randy Dauphin who became King Charles VII and his party girl mistress Agnes Sorel. And a surprisingly poignant monologue from Geoffroy Thérage, the executioner who lit the fire. The girl, the warrior, the symbol, the martyr.

The world according to Joan. All the scared, brave, brash humility and humanity of the remarkable young woman in Heretic.

Heretic continues at the TPM Backspace until Nov 22; it’s an intimate space, so advance booking is a good idea – you can purchase tix online.

And you can keep up with Soup Can Theatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And consider supporting the company via their online silent auction fundraiser.

Niagara on the Lake – some places I like

So here’s a brief photo tour of some of my favourite spots in Niagara on the Lake – besides the Shaw Festival, of course. I also ate at The Stagecoach (http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/242/1690746/restaurant/Ontario/Stagecoach-Family-Restaurant-Niagara-on-the-Lake), The Irish Harp pub (http://theirishharppub.com/) and Corks (http://corksniagara.com/), had breakfast at the Charles Inn (http://www.niagarasfinest.com/properties/charlesrestaurant/) and stopped by Cows (http://www.cows.ca/) for ice cream.

The Charles Inn – with details of the painting & bouquet in my room (the Sunflower Room) & the 2nd floor veranda (see thumbnails).
Viking Shop – one of my favourites because of all the awesome wind chimes & shiny/stained glass hanging things.
Irish Design & Irish Tea Room – shop in the front with tea room & patio in the back (tea room is licensed!).
Husbands, boyfriends & others not into/tired of shopping can take advantage of the many “husband benches.”
The Shaw Cafe – nice & a bit fancy, but relaxed. Make sure you visit the George Bernard Shaw statue just outside (see thumbnail).
No trip to NotL would be complete without getting some fudge – I always go to Maple Leaf Fudge.
Fan of movies & movie memorabilia? Check out The Silver Screen.
Take a horse-drawn carriage ride. You’ll find them waiting by the Prince of Wales Hotel.
Also not far from the Prince of Wales Hotel, the town Cenytaph.